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Aboriginal population soared before European settlement

Australia’s Aboriginal population grew rapidly over the last 3500 years and could have continued to grow had European settlement not occurred, new population mapping has shown.

Researchers from the James Cook University and the University of Adelaide developed a new population growth model in an effort to settle a debate among archaeologists over whether Aboriginal populations grew steadily or increased sharply during the last few thousand years.

Some archaeologists have argued that while radiocarbon dating suggests recent population growth, it could actually be the case that the growth was steady but that evidence of older sites has disappeared through natural destruction such as erosion.

However, researchers Christopher Johnson and Barry Brook created a model that accounts for the role of evidence that has disappeared. They found that 10,000 years ago, growth was steady but that there was a rapid upswing in population growth starting just over 3500 years ago.

“The model tells us the recent rapid rate of increase was real and it was happening in a population that hadn’t developed large scale agriculture yet,” said Professor Brook from the University of Adelaide.

“It’s the first time we have evidence that a hunter gatherer society can experience large scale increases in population density. Usually that is done in societies that feature agriculture,” he told The Conversation.

The population boom could have been helped along by a change in climate or the introduction of the dingo 3000 to 4000 years ago.

“It’s around that time the model suggests human populations really took off. Dingoes are commensurate hunters and helped humans run down prey,” he said.

“There’s also evidence that Aborigines were becoming more sedentary. There’s evidence in Victoria that they were developing elements of an agricultural society. So it’s possible that the population increase could have continued were it not for the introduction of Europeans,” he said.

The findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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